Imagine 15,000 women involved with technology all in one place. That is what happened in Houston a couple of weeks ago at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. The event is named for Grace Hopper, also known as Amazing Grace, who was a computer scientist and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral from 1940s to the 80s. She was one of the first computer scientists who talked about technology in everyday language rather than using “techno-babble”. Most of the attendees were under 30, just graduating or early on in their careers.

At the conference, women (and a few men) had the chance to learn, be mentored as well as have the opportunity to discuss common issues and solutions. This year, 95 per cent of the attendees were women – showing men what it feels like to be a minority in IT.

But what drew so many women to this conference? It is a combination of a number of information-packed sessions as well as a career fair with over 200 companies looking to hire women interested in a career in the technology field.

Google booth at the Expo at the Grace Hopper Conference

There were many large companies like Google, Deutsche Bank, PayPal and Uber just to name a few as well as smaller firms like Gusto, Blue Apron and Enova. I accompanied three Simon Fraser University Beedie School of Business students (Iris Xing, Anna Bukreeva and Margaret Kapitany) who are studying in the technology field. This was the first time for them attending this conference.

In addition to the expo of the over 200 companies, up to 8 parallel sessions were offered which, as Anna Bukreeva mentions in her blog, showcased “passionate speakers sharing their expertise and vision for the future of animation, wearables, open source, blockchain and cyber security to name few, and provided insight to attendees of the infinite opportunities in the tech field.” In addition to technical topics, other softer areas were addressed such as “How to Harness the Strength of Introverts” and “Communicating for Influence and Impact”. These topics are important areas for women to learn and understand and are often not available at other technology focussed conferences.

The highlight of the conference was a presentation by Virginia Rometty, CEO and President of IBM. She identified what is important in today’s technology: data is king but data analysis is becoming increasingly more important and may be referred to as the “queen.”

She mentioned that over half of the data existing now is unstructured, and there is going to be a lot more of it. She described how systems that learn by using data are going to be increasingly important in the world. She talked about the IBM Watson system that beat the two best Jeopardy players by relying on the structured data as its knowledge base. Watson now has more important work; for example, IBM is partnering with healthcare firms to identify the best treatment for cancer patients based on structured information available to Watson. In her concluding advice to women, Rometty encouraged the attendees to take on big challenges and learn from them with the observation that growth and comfort can never co-exist.

In addition to the formal sessions, there were lots of opportunities to network. One of the SFU students, Margaret Kapitany, was surprised by the breadth of experience of the women at the conference. She observed that they “were all of such high caliber. I’d stand in line with PhD’s from Stanford, and the conversations would range from academic background and research to discussing favorite booths at the expo”.

From left to right: Catherine, Anna, Margaret and Iris at the Grace Hopper Conference

Being at a conference where women are in majority is something unusual. I was very impressed with the enthusiasm of the attendees, all wanting to know more about technology while sharing their knowledge. The conference organizers had special initiatives and events to encourage mentoring, learning, networking and sharing. Their Hoppers program inspired volunteers to go the extra mile, as Iris Xing found out when she became a “Hopper” in assisting attendees in ways other conferences may not, such as providing child care during the conference, an area where Iris volunteered.

I was part of a special mentoring event where the over 100 scholarship recipients had an opportunity to be mentored by business executives and professors. The students were asked to practice their elevator speech and we as mentors listened to it and suggested improvements. Among the 7 items we were asked to look for in the students’ elevator pitch, the most important was the identification of what she is trying to achieve from the conversation and confirmation of eye contact. Of course while I was at the event, I also networked; I met two professors from the University of Nigeria, both of whom knew about SFU. I have exchanged emails since the conference.

Mentoring reception networking with Professors from Nigeria

If everything were as it should be, the GHC would not be needed because we would talk about people in technology, rather than highlighting the lack of women in technology. There is always hope that we will get to that point in the future but until then it is a very good thing that there is the Grace Hopper Conference to actively support and encourage women in technology.

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